Cheddar has always dominated the British cheese aisles, but the influence of the adventurous consumer is leading to a change in the supermarkets, according to Matthew Hall, commercial manager at Butlers Farmhouse Cheeses.
The Lancashire brand has just come away with 14 awards from the British Cheese Awards – with the highlight for Hall that its trio of blue cheeses each scooped up an accolade.
“We make three blue cheeses, the Blacksticks Blue, Stratford Blue and the Beacon Blue, which is a goat’s cheese,” he tells Food Spark.
“To be able to get an award for each of them is quite exciting, as it shows they are competing against each other and in the wider category at the same time. It also shows there is a real differentiation between the products. They have got a unique selling point for each of them. As the blue cheese market continues to grow and expand, people are more and more seeing there is something more exciting than Stilton.”
Hall says even the devout cheddar fans – those that buy it week in and week out – are looking to experiment with something new in the category. Plus, cheese is primed to play into the meat-free trend.
“I think a lot of that is being brought about by the mass changes in the restaurant scene and travel in recent years, in the sense that the continental cheese that we have when we go away or in restaurants is making us reassess the cheese fixture when we go into the retail shops,” he explains.
“People are thinking, ‘I quite liked having that brie in France and now I can see British brie in the fixture in Tesco, so why don’t I give that a go?’ Because fundamentally, price point wise, cheese is very accessible at a premium end for a lot of people. Consumers consider protein a lot more and are looking to go meat-free on more days. Cheese is an alternative and can make a really hearty meal – and it’s half the price on a kilo basis compared to a piece of beef, for example.”
Cheesed off with cheddar, blue is a big focus of the innovation pipeline for Butlers. In the past three years, Hall has seen blue cheese really start to capture the public imagination – and Butlers wants to ensure it’s not just consigned to the cheeseboard.
“We are really looking to expand the Blacksticks product, as what we find is it’s a very indulgent product – it’s great for cooking and melting,” explains Hall. “We have seen chefs use it for a long time in terms of cheese souffles for starters, as well as using it in interesting ways for desserts. That’s essentially where we are starting to take our development.”
Hitting shelves in October will be a Blacksticks Blue Smooth – a more spreadable version of its award-winning cheese.
“One of the core challenges we find with a wedge of cheese is that, by definition of that format, it is pigeonholed into certain usage occasion. As convenience grows and grows, people are looking at different ways to consume the things they love,” Hall continues.
“Having a spreadable version gives them the whole premium concept of Blacksticks Blue, but it lets them use it on a day-to-day basis. I think it will make blue cheese more accessible to people on a day-to-day basis and reduce the food waste they have from fancying a bit of blue cheese on steak one night and then not going back to it for a couple of weeks.”
Butlers is also releasing a Blacksticks Blue Cheese Brulee in November as a Christmas line, introducing a savoury stalwart into the dessert category. Topped with sugar, consumers can pop the product under the grill to caramelise the top of the cheese, providing a “really indulgent finish to a meal,” says Hall.
“People are looking for something a little more exciting to finish the meal than cheese with chutney and crackers, but at the same time they want cheese as the finish to the meal, so it’s about finding what’s the relevant twist to that,” he adds.
Another Christmas combination will allow people to get a little boozy with their Butlers cheese. The Slow and the Curious pairs Blacksticks Blue with 6 O’clock Damson Gin.
Wonky cheese, Brexit and veganism
But it’s not just blue that is trending in cheese. Vintage-style products with a stronger flavour profile – typically cheeses aged for 18 to 24 months – are starting to creep up, according to Hall, as are products made from different kinds of animal milk.
The wonky veg movement is also having an impact on cheese purchases.
“People are being open to a piece of cheese that isn’t exactly the same shape and size every time, so one can be 200g and 2cm wide and another 200g and 4cm wide and that’s okay,” he explains. “I think that resurgence is starting to link back to where food comes from and it’s something I’m hoping will continue in coming years, because I think that will give more opportunity to get greater flavours of product coming through.”
Brexit could also be a potential opportunity for the market, with 700 cheeses made in the UK. In fact, Hall met someone at the British Cheese Awards who is setting up a deli that will only stock British cheeses – a move he describes as bold, but with a great provenance message.
“You can absolutely have a British alternative to every single cheese that you can get on the continent,” he claims.
When Food Spark asks about the potential of Butlers moving into plant-based cheeses, Hall teasingly asks whether we were secretly videoing the meeting he just finished.
“We are going to start exploring it,” he admits. “As a cheesemaker, we like to be thought of as someone who is innovative and really understands cheese as product end to end. So if we can make a plant-based cheese that tastes great and the nutritionals are good for you, then we are absolutely going to explore that.”
But sourcing will be a major factor when it comes to any plant-based production, adds Hall, because Butlers’ local farmer base relies on the company to purchase 100% of their milk. Dairy-free cheeses could mean taking the farmers on a journey to diversify into a crop like oats.
As for cashews, due to the energy and resources involved in growing them, Hall isn’t nuts about them as an ingredient.